FutureLearn, the UK’s massive open online course platform, is launching its first programmes that allow students to earn credits towards a university degree.
The initiative is designed to allow learners to sample higher education courses on a “try before you buy” basis, with individuals who go on to sign up for a full degree being entitled to skip part of their first year, and potentially receive a discount on tuition fees.
The University of Leeds is offering one of the first programmes, bringing together a series of Moocs on environmental issues, running over several weeks each, that could be converted into 10 credits towards one of its undergraduate geography degrees.
The Open University, which owns FutureLearn, is the other provider offering academic credit at this stage, via courses worth up to 30 credits that could lead to qualifications including an MBA.
The courses will be free to take, but to collect the credits students will have to purchase a new form of accreditation called a certificate of achievement for each module, costing between £39 and £59 each. They would then have to complete a final assessment, costing several hundred pounds.
Sir Alan Langlands, Leeds’ vice-chancellor, argued that offering credit online could prove to be a valuable recruitment tool for campus-based courses.
“We are very conscious of the fact that, when we start recruiting next for students for 2018, many of them will have been born after the year 2000,” said Sir Alan. “I think young people are going to take a different attitude: they will want high quality, but they will also want flexibility as learners, and maybe some of them won’t want all this to be restricted by geography.
“Developing this longer-term position on digital learning seems very timely from our point of view.”
FutureLearn is also launching a series of Moocs that will lead towards professional qualifications, with the University of Birmingham and Queensland University of Technology among the institutions offering courses.
Peter Horrocks, the OU’s vice-chancellor, described the initiative as a “bridgehead” between social learning and the more traditional degree system.
“It will allow people to test and taste courses and then to make the additional commitment once they’ve had that additional experience,” Mr Horrocks said. “We think it will be extremely attractive to learners and we also think it will have a very significant effect in helping to transform UK higher education.”
The new courses also mark a significant attempt by FutureLearn to put itself on a self-sufficient financial footing. The platform now has 3.7 million registered users from nearly 200 countries, but continues to be heavily subsidised by the OU.
Simon Nelson, FutureLearn’s chief executive, rejected suggestions that the launch of certificates costing several hundred pounds was a move away from the platform’s founding ethos of open learning for all.
“I’m always been very clear that we are guided by a social mission that excites and unifies the team I’ve got, but we’re a commercial spin-off of The Open University,” Mr Nelson said. “I’m a passionate believer that the way to have real significant impact in the world is to make sure we are a sustainable business and our partners are delivering sustainable returns on investment as well.”